Digital, Class, Work gives an important analysis of value and labour in the context of new technology, and workers’ resistance, finds Kieran Crowe

If the title of this book could be said to be lacking a certain energy, I am glad to report that neither the contents nor the author is short of any. Roberts has clearly battled to get this book out in time to be relevant, and it has pretty much paid off. As I put it down, my news feed filled with strikes, including the barely precedented wildcat actions at Amazon warehouses: the actual working class testing prevailing ideological orthodoxy to destruction, to what I am sure is Roberts’ satisfaction.

This book could roughly be said to be about economics and technology, but its actual scope is more ambitious than that. In ten fairly concise chapters, the author mounts a defence of Marx’s theory of value, responds to some of the most influential ideological trends of the past quarter century, and examines in detail the realities and illusions around the various sectors of modern capitalist production.

Productive and non-productive sectors

The early chapters begin by laying out some of the theoretical framework that Roberts seeks to reinforce through his arguments. Of particular interest is his long discussion about the difference between productive and non-productive labour in the economy. This is a concept from Marx that is actually somewhat neglected today, and the author argues powerfully that a lot of the apparent ambiguities that render modern economic thinking problematic actually start with a failure to grasp this distinction. This confuses discussions about value, and where value is being created and/or realised in the modern economy. It is key to understand that not all work is directly productive of surplus value, which is realised as profit through the market. This confusion sometimes gives rise to mistaken optimism, sometimes to mistaken pessimism, but it’s all mistaken.

Robert’s take on technology is matter of fact in a very useful way, and analyses technology not on its own terms – because that is not how it is implemented – but in the context of neoliberalism, modern imperialism, and the system shocks of both the 2008 economic crash and the pandemic. Throughout, he uses data to underline the point that despite the novel features of all these things, crises have ultimately tended to reinforce, rather than disrupt, pre-existing hierarchies of class, sex, race, and northern over southern states. The reasons for this are that while the mechanics behind capitalist accumulation change, the dynamics actually do not. Even the crises associated with covid-19 and climate change do not change this fundamental factor: the only thing that could is class struggle.

Lean production

As the book progresses, we get into economic trends in more detail. On the productive economy side, lean production is examined. Roberts argues powerfully that the growth and domination of lean production – a model that sacrifices stability and sustainability in the name of efficiency – is neither a more natural way of doing things, nor an inescapable consequence of technology’s march. It is rather a direct consequence of the logic of non-productive finance capitalism dominating the productive economy.

He progresses later on to show that we can also see this in the way that the public sector has been relentlessly attacked (the public sector does not directly create capitalists’ surplus value, so squeezing it is thought to provide more space for profit making). He also shows that the fundamental weaknesses that lean thinking management have in dealing with crises present opportunities for workers, who are closer to production and have better instinctual understanding of how to stay productive. Worker participation started to creep in as a result of recent crises, followed by worker confrontation of management.

Sites of resistance

The question of where resistance forms leads Roberts to an example of a more pessimistic view of modern capitalism that he frequently critiques: the work of ‘autonomist’ thinkers such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Although somewhat less commonly quoted these days, Hardt and Negri were two of the most influential thinkers on the radical left at the start of the twenty-first century, and central to their work was the claim that the modern, networked and globalised economy meant that Marx’s conception of the production of value was obsolete, and that almost every area of life is now a point of production. For them, there is no particular difference between picket lines and protests, while the 2011 Occupy movement was a height of radicalism equal to, or even greater than, the present upturn in workers’ struggle. Roberts argues that this inability to identify what was and wasn’t critical to capitalism was the cause of the defeat of those early 2010s movements.

At the opposite end of the scale of faulty ideas, Roberts also takes on the ideological questions surrounding the ‘creative sector’. The concept that the creative industries were a new, vibrant field of production, free of the limitations and exclusions of previous capitalist industry (provided, of course, you live in the Global North!) was absolutely central to centre-left thinking at the turn of the millennium. In Britain, in particular, the then Labour government believed it could compensate for the way deindustrialisation had hit its social base by getting as many young people as possible into the sector, turning them all into self-realising middle-class professionals.

Once again, Roberts argues, reality comes knocking in the form of concealed differences between productive and non-productive labour. ‘Creative’ industries, that appear to be undertakings of free and equal individuals coming together to collaborate, conceal relations of production that simply use new technological methods and obfuscated differences of access to finance and productive means to hide relations of exploitation. Indeed, far from being a path to middle-class stability, the creative sector has become almost the opposite as a result of the pandemic: getting into jobs defined as ‘creative’ is more reliant than ever on connections and educational opportunities that only a minority of the middle classes have, while the actual pay and status benefits of holding such jobs is also, ironically, declining.

Towards the end, Roberts takes on the so-called ‘gig economy’ and platform work. His key points about these sectors boil down, really, to what smoke and mirrors they have been. Using modern communication technology methods to wow people, while actually providing services that are fairly traditional, is in no small part a scam by people who are just pretending not to be capitalist employers. He clearly wrote this before the Uber email leak – which exposed that Uber internally understood that its business model was essentially just ignoring laws and fundamental workers’ rights – but they won’t have surprised him in the slightest. On a positive note, Roberts presents data showing that one group of people not fooled by the apparently white-hot novelty of gig work are the actual workers, who frequently and all over the world strongly identify as workers and show a great appetite for organising as such.

Despite this being a short book, I won’t say it is a light read. Roberts quotes his references at every possible opportunity, and frequently stops a story abruptly to explain his theoretical framing. I don’t see that as being a problem, and despite having no real economic knowledge, I didn’t find anything excessively heavy going. The chapters are really interesting deep dives into a range of topics, and it would be difficult to imagine a book that is more timely that this. The final conclusion is maybe a touch of a rough landing, but the author does justify his position of defending Marx’s theory of labour value, and if you want to know why that matters you frankly just need to look at the bewildering array of strikes that are happening out there right now.

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